ESPN Fantasy: Everything you need to know about our new baseball format

Worried about drafting an oft-injured player like Mike Trout too early? Our new-look ESPN default settings may help ease your concerns. John Cordes/Icon Sportswire

As the on-field game of baseball embraces change with new rules in an effort to improve both the pace of play and on-field action, so should the great game of fantasy baseball also adapt.

Beginning this season, ESPN's standard fantasy baseball offering has undergone a few noticeable changes, designed to enhance the user experience and inject more excitement surrounding the game's biggest stars.

What are those changes?

First of all, starting lineup sizes have shrunk, from 22 to 16 players, with hitters reflecting a true "MLB lineup" of one each of catcher, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman and shortstop, three outfielders and one designated hitter/utilityman. Pitching staffs have also been adjusted, dropping from nine to seven pitchers required on a team.

Having smaller rosters of 19 players per team (three bench spots) puts more of the spotlight on star-caliber baseball talents. Additionally, with fewer players needing to be selected on draft day, the length of those drafts will shorten accordingly and improve the entire experience.

Second, scoring for pitchers has experienced a small change, to account for the rising specialization on the field. Wins, previously worth five points, will now be worth two apiece, while losses, previously worth minus-5, will now be minus-2 points. Holds, meanwhile, joined the fray with a two-point valuation.

The rising importance of middle relievers brings holds into the spotlight and helps account for today's more specialized, relief-heavy game. Additionally, lowering the emphasis on wins and losses helps neutralize some of the randomness involved in both of those categories.

What does this mean for me, the fantasy baseball manager?

To answer this very important question, let's turn to our ESPN fantasy baseball analysts extraordinaire, Tristan H. Cockcroft and Eric Karabell.

Cockcroft: Besides shorter drafts and an increased focus on the game's stars, one of the big wins of this change is a greater amount of roster churn, or in other words, more excitement on the waiver wire.

Baseball is a 162-game, 186-day grind (or at least in 2023 it's that many days), and more casual fantasy players find it frustrating when, upon losing a player to injury or getting frustrated with healthy ones who are slumping, there's little in the way of star power on the free-agent list. With the new rules, higher-quality players will be more readily available and teams can remain competitive no matter how unlucky they end up being on the injury front. In fact, fantasy managers should be more aggressive with the waiver wire, and more impatient with their struggling draft picks, with this move. Juice the orange, I often say, and that strategy is even more viable now.

From a draft standpoint, elite players at each position take on greater importance, because of how the smaller lineups -- especially on the hitting side -- raise the bar for what is considered a replacement-level fantasy player. A top catcher, for example, becomes more valuable, in part because catcher now represents 1 of 9 rather than 1 of 13 hitting positions, meaning fewer other lineup spots to make up for a poor-performing backstop. Will Smith, for instance, is now very much a top-100 overall player, even if he's not the statistical equal of, say, a Nolan Arenado.

High-risk/high-reward players (like Fernando Tatis Jr., Mike Trout and Tyler Glasnow) become far more attractive selections with smaller lineups, too, because of the greater ease in which you can replace them in the worst-case scenario.

On the pitching side, the point-value changes probably won't have as big an impact as you might expect, beyond relief pitchers catching up a bit with starters on the whole. I've often endorsed the strategy of one ace, 3-4 elite relievers, then stream the rest of the staff -- for example, going Corbin Burnes, Emmanuel Clase, Devin Williams and Felix Bautista with four of your first eight picks -- where a relief pitcher should be in every active pitching slot on the days you don't have a scheduled starter there. That's a stronger approach now with the two points for holds, and it should be a must that you always have either a scheduled starter or a reliever (and one who is not too tired to potentially work that day) in every active lineup spot.

Karabell: Indeed, I would agree that it makes far more sense now to invest in a risky player, either due to past injuries or statistical variance, than it normally would in a deeper league. Trout and Jacob deGrom are great examples. I think we know both of them will be terrific fantasy options when they play, but it will be so much easier to find a replacement outfielder/starting pitcher if and when they miss chunks of games with injury. That's just realistic. So what if Tatis misses the first few weeks of the season due to his suspension? There may be some top-30 outfielders in your 10-team league that don't get selected in the draft at all!

These roster changes also make it far wiser not to bother investing in any extra hitters at all. As you say, your strategy of streaming starting pitchers works and, in this format, high-upside starting pitchers should comprise a fantasy bench, whether it is an older option with an injury history such as Glasnow or a raw rookie such as Philadelphia's Andrew Painter, who may well make the Opening Day rotation. If he doesn't, just find someone else immediately worth streaming!

New to fantasy baseball? Get all the basic info you need from The Playbook here.

If you're a returning fantasy baseball manager...

... worry not! Your league will still carry over its former settings, meaning that if you played in an old-school rotisserie league, with 23-man rosters and two starting catchers that has a scoring system that doesn't count runs scored or pitching strikeouts -- or any other conceivable format -- you'll begin 2023 with those very same league specifications.

These changes only affect newly created ESPN standard leagues.

If you're a returning league, and you do wish to change your rules to our new standard format, this can be done using the League Manager Tools, under "Edit League Settings" and "Edit Scoring Settings." Positions can be changed under "Roster," while point totals can be adjusted under "Scoring."

Feel free to get creative! There are so many ways to experience fantasy baseball, and our hope is this new standard format will only enhance the enjoyment for all fantasy managers.

Now, let's play ball!